Zeman hails 'positive' EU report, but serious problems remain unresolved

Milos Zeman and Ramiro Cibrian, photo: CTK

On Tuesday the European Commission issued its annual progress report on the Czech Republic's readiness to join the EU - a document which the 12 countries vying for membership usually await with a mixture of anticipation and dread. This year's report is being described as mostly positive; the Commission praised the country for making substantial progress in many areas. But it wasn't all claps on the back for the Czechs, as Rob Cameron reports.

Milos Zeman and Ramiro Cibrian,  photo: CTK
A smiling Prime Minister Milos Zeman appeared before journalists in Prague's Hrzansky Palace on Tuesday evening, to give his reaction to the Commission's annual progress report. Mr Zeman was keen to stress the overall positive tone of this year's assessment:

"This report is fundamentally more positive than last year's, and I particularly welcome one sentence which says that the Czech Republic has a fully functioning market economy."

But of course it wasn't all good news. The report outlines two key problems. Firstly, the Commission highlighted the level of corruption and financial crime in the country, saying it was particularly concerned about fraud, money-laundering and embezzlement. Mr Zeman accepted there were still problems, but reiterated his government's commitment to fighting financial crime. He was also quick to explain the Commission's criticism of the high number of government contracts that have been granted without public tenders. The Prime Minister said the figures for individual ministries was actually falling, and said the overall number of "closed tenders" was still lower than in previous right-wing governments.

But the European Commission also criticised Prague for dragging its heels on introducing a law on the civil service. The Commissioner for Enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, spoke on Tuesday of the importance of strengthening the Union's administrative capacity. That will be a tall order for the Czech Republic with no civil service law. Fair enough, said Mr Zeman, but don't blame us...

"I particularly accept the 'evergreen' that has appeared in previous reports - criticism of the lack of a law on the civil service. But there is one fundamental change: the cabinet has now approved a draft law on the civil service, but that law is currently encountering opposition in parliament. And so I do hope that opponents of the civil service law read the Commission's report thoroughly."

But no matter how much progress the candidate countries make before the end of 2002 - when the accession process is due to close - there are still obstacles in the EU itself to the enlargement process. A serious blow came in June, when the people of Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty, which is meant to pave the way for enlargement. I asked Mr Zeman whether he was still optimistic that the process would stay on track in the wake of the Irish referendum.

"Don't exaggerate the results of the Irish referendum because it was not a referendum against enlargement. Anyway, not only the Czech Republic but also Ireland probably needs a more efficient communication strategy with the population."